Global supply chains have become so complex that it makes accountability for human rights protections difficult. As illustrated in our interactive Freedom Map, forced labor is everywhere – from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. However, with proper due diligence, it is possible to track and monitor incidents of violations, such as forced labor.
Non-profits and companies now exist whose sole task is to verify companies’ compliance with human and labor rights standards. But what do you do if those agencies are themselves compromised?
The case of Better Cotton
The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) exists to promote “sustainable” cotton. One of their guiding principles is “decent work.” However, BCI collaborated with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) for several years. The XPCC runs the forced labor camps in which Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim groups are detained.
Even after conclusive reports were published exposing the persecution and systematic forced labor overseen by the XPCC, BCI still operated in the Uyghur Region for a few more years. They didn’t leave the region until the United States Office of Foreign Assets banned transactions with the XPCC. At the time, they said they had left due to sustained allegations of forced labor and other human rights abuses. However, following a backlash from China against companies that made public statements of not using cotton from the Uyghur Region, BCI removed its statement from its website.
The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region has tried to reach out to BCI on its statement removal and current stance. However, since then, BCI refuses to comment on why it left the region.
This troubling series of events begs the question: how do we know that labor watchdogs are doing their jobs?
Who’s monitoring the monitors?
BCI is not alone in its accountability gaps. Respected and popular monitoring initiatives, such as Social Accountability International, Sedex and Social & Labor Convergence Program (SLCP), rely on private companies to assess factories and companies. The problem with this model is obvious.
According to Al Jazeera,
Critics … argue that this model – where companies monitor other companies using voluntary criteria – has often failed to identify labour and safety risks, and is particularly ill-designed for the Chinese context, with its pervasive surveillance and meagre labour rights.
‘An [assessment] cannot address broader structural issues nor the entire business model and the context in which production is occurring,” Nana Frishling, an Australia-based business and human rights expert, told Al Jazeera.
This is particularly true for China where, according to the US State Department, supply chain observers “have reportedly been detained, harassed, threatened, or stopped at the airport.”
Continued pressure from the international community, as with the case of BCI, can help keep watchdogs accountable.
Join us in calling on China to dismantle its Uyghur forced labor system!